Commentary: The world's most powerful teenager? Facebook

Commentary: The world's most powerful teenager? Facebook

The Instagram age has given rise to a new class — the “influencers”, who persuade their followers to buy and think in certain ways. But the biggest influencer of the lot is Facebook, says the Financial Times' Gideon Rachman.

Attendees walk past a Facebook logo during Facebook Inc's F8 developers conference in San Jose
Attendees walk past a Facebook logo during Facebook Inc's F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Stephen Lam)

LONDON: The Instagram age has given rise to a new class — the “influencers”, who persuade their followers to buy and think in certain ways.

But the biggest influencer of the lot is Facebook — the company that owns Instagram, WhatsApp as well as Facebook itself. 

With 2.7 billion users — more than a third of the world’s population — Facebook is a massive, global political force, accused of everything from tipping the 2016 US presidential election to enabling genocide in Myanmar.

RELUCTANT SOCIAL MEDIA LEADER

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg was once reluctant to acknowledge the company’s political power — initially rejecting the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the 2016 election as “crazy”.

This attitude may have been naive or disingenuous, but it was certainly not sustainable. Facebook has become a political target — and so it has had to enter the political arena, trying to mollify legislators who fear its power.

READ: Commentary: Big Tech’s growth spurt may be coming to an end

At 35 years old, Mr Zuckerberg has proved himself to be a brilliant engineer and businessman.

But now he will have to prove himself a brilliant politician. If he fails, his creation could be broken up — or find that its ambitions are increasingly thwarted and its best products regulated out of existence. 

THE THREAT: TREATING FACEBOOK LIKE A PUBLISHER

Perhaps the biggest threat to Facebook would be if governments decided to treat it as a publisher rather than a platform — making it legally liable for every lie or libel published by the company. 

Demonstrators carry an inflatable angry emoji during a protest outside the Facebook 2019 Annual Sha
Demonstrators carry an inflatable angry emoji during a protest outside the Facebook 2019 Annual Shareholder Meeting in Menlo Park, California, U.S., May 30, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Stephen Lam)

Its sprawling headquarters in Menlo Park, California, would then be buried under a blizzard of lawsuits. 

Yet government action could also be the company’s salvation. At 15 years old, Facebook is the world’s most powerful adolescent.

READ: Commentary: Help, I love tech monopolies!

Like many teenagers, it could benefit if adults set some limits — in particular, by regulating the way it deals with politics. The alternative is for a company with 40,000 employees to continue trying to moderate the political debates of 2.7 billion people.

UNDER FIERCE ATTACK

In its home market of the US, Facebook is under fierce attack from both sides of the political divide.

The president has accused Facebook of being “always anti-Trump”, a charge echoed by prominent Republicans who claim that the company’s algorithm downplays news from rightwing sources.

Facebook’s decision to de-platform some far-right commentators, such as the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, have also sparked accusations of bias.

READ: Commentary: One US lawmaker is onto something with her big ideas on Big Tech

Meanwhile, the left accuses Facebook of blithe tolerance of lies and political manipulation — preferring to rake in profits and build user numbers than to face up to its political responsibilities.

To make this argument, the senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, has deliberately placed a misleading advertisement on Facebook — claiming that Mr Zuckerberg endorsed Mr Trump for re-election.

Zuckerberg and Trump
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg met US President Donald Trump and members of the Congress on Sep 19, 2019. (Photo: Twitter/realDonaldTrump)

Facebook has not risen to the bait by taking it down. Last week, Mr Zuckerberg argued, “I don’t think its right for a private company to censor politicians.”

This week, Facebook’s boss will be back in Washington to testify before Congress on the company’s ambitions for Libra, a digital currency, which, in the current anti-Facebook climate, is a tough sell. 

GLOBAL CONCERNS

These American controversies are replicated all over the world. In the UK, many Remainers believe that ads on Facebook played a nefarious role in swinging the 2016 Brexit referendum, by targeting susceptible voters with fake news about immigration. 

In Asia, the company faces even more serious allegations. UN investigators in Myanmar warned that Facebook was the primary means by which hatred and mass atrocities were sparked against Rohingya Muslims — hundreds of thousands of whom were forced to flee the country. In India, lynch mobs were allegedly mobilised using WhatsApp. 

Facebook is constantly having to adjust its policies and products to deal with this blizzard of complaints. It has limited the number of users to which WhatsApp messages can be forwarded, in an effort to prevent hysteria going viral.

Facebook, whose "war room" on misinformation is seen in a 2018 picture, remains the
Facebook, whose "war room" on misinformation is seen in a 2018 picture, remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation campaigns, according to global study by Oxford University researchers. (Photo: AFP/NOAH BERGER)

It uses external fact-checkers, aided by artificial intelligence, to search out fake news — which is then labelled and given a lower ranking. It continues to ban advocates of terrorism and hate speech. It has deleted billions of fake accounts.

But the borderline between freedom of expression and incitement to violence — and between legitimate politicians and hatemongers — is inevitably contested.

A COMPLICATED MATTER

To deal with disputes about what content Facebook should ban from its platform, the company is setting up an independent oversight board — which it rather grandly likens to the US Supreme Court.

The effort is interesting and serious. But it is surely beyond the capabilities of a single company to make nuanced judgments about political debate in hundreds of countries and languages. As a result, increasing intervention by governments is inevitable.

China has simply banned Facebook. But there are less sweeping actions that can be taken. Facebook already adheres to Germany’s laws on Holocaust-denial, for example, by geo-blocking that kind of content for Germany. 

READ: Commentary: China banning Facebook and Google now looks smart considering recent data breaches

READ:  Commentary: The real reason Google and Facebook should be broken up? China

FILE PHOTO: Stickers bearing the Facebook logo are pictured at Facebook Inc's F8 developers co
Stickers bearing the Facebook logo are pictured at Facebook Inc's F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Stephen Lam)

In the US, there is growing talk about breaking up the company. But while there might be an economic case for splitting it up, there would be no political justification to do so.

The social media age is here to stay, with all its complications. Shutting down Facebook would not change that.

Source: Financial Times/sl

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